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An effortless victory: How Jeff Swenson won a race he wasn't running

Jeff Swenson is a four-term St. Paul Park City Council Member.

Although Jeff Swenson didn't spend a single dollar or a minute on campaigning, 1,405 voters ensured he will appear on the ballot this November for a seat on the Washington County Board of Commissioners.

Swenson, who came in second to Wayne Johnson for the District 4 seat by 15 votes in last week's primary election, had informally withdrawn from the race around late June after his university closed several campuses. The shift left the four-term St. Paul Park City Council member looking for a new gig, with no guarantees it would be compatible with the daytime hours required for the board position, which covers Cottage Grove, Denmark Township, Grey Cloud Island Township, Newport, St. Paul Park and portions of Woodbury and Hastings.

READ MORE: Minnesota state primary results: Walz, Johnson led in Washington County

"I couldn't give the commissioner job the time that it deserved at that point," he said.

Because the board is nonpartisan, the top two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election.

Swenson was at the Oslo, Norway airport waiting to board his flight home from a family trip when state Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, texted him.

"Keith just kind of just laughed and said, wow, you're winning," he said.

More good news was waiting for Swenson at home: he had racked up three job offers. As of Tuesday, he says he is weighing his options and exploring whether any of the potential employers would be compatible with the time required for re-entering the race and serving on the board.

"I'm in a much better place with regards to being able to serve the residents here," he said.

As Swenson took in the news and recuperated from jet lag, he called the county to touch base and found they shared his surprise.

"The people at the county (office) were laughing when I talked to them," he said.

Although Swenson attempted to withdraw from the race around late June or mid-July, he missed the June 7 deadline to formally remove his name from the ballot, Washington County Director of Property Records and Taxpayer Services Jennifer Wagenius confirmed. There is no procedure to remove him from the general election.

Swenson said that because he didn't campaign at all, he figured his name's appearance on the ballot would be a "non-issue." The Woodbury and South Washington County Bulletins, as well as the Pioneer Press, had included that Swenson was no longer running in the papers' preview coverage of the election in early August.

Historic turnout

The unexpected victory comes amid a historically high turnout for a primary election in Minnesota. The total of 902,000 voters — out of 3.2 million registered voters — is the highest it’s been since 1982. In Washington County, about one in four registered voters cast their ballots, making this year’s turnout the highest for a primary within the county since 2004.

The 2016 and 2014 primaries respectively saw 7.3 percent and 9.8 percent of registered voters in Washington County participate.

Several people at the polls said their disagreement with national politicians including President Donald Trump motivated them to vote in a primary for the first time. Most voters in Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Newport also said that they hadn't done as much research on the Washington County Board as they did for candidates in larger races.

Both of these sentiments are common in voting behavior, says Brianna Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy who received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

Research shows that people have commonly cited their level of happiness with national politics as a reason to vote in local elections since the 1970s, when politics first started to become more partisan, she said.

"Once you get into the voting booth, you actually do have to make a decision and if all of your motivation is from national politics, you see this ballot you don't know anything about," Smith said.

Even when voters do the research, she said, they might not always know how to use the information in their decision.

"We're not used to thinking about politics in terms of how much money the school board needs to pay for textbooks or what the water utility should look like," she said. "We might not have very well-defined opinions on those things."

Two other factors that may influence a voter's decision are the order in which a candidate's name appears on the ballot and how familiar the name sounds, she said.

In Minnesota, the order of the names for all races are rotated per state law.

"I think a lot of people are just like, wow, voters are dumb. But it's not that voters are dumb. They're trying to make decisions quickly with a minimum amount of information. And if they don't have all the information they need, they're going to use whatever is in front of them," she said.

Swenson chalks up his success to name recognition. In addition to having been re-elected for a fourth four-year term on the St. Paul Park City Council in 2017, he's held leadership positions at the Pullman Parent Teacher Association, coached youth softball and served on the board for the St. Paul Park Heritage Days Festival.

"So, my name is out there quite a bit," he said. "People probably didn't see the stories of me not running."

Swenson said he originally wanted to run because he thought his strengths in financial management, communication and collaboration would make him an effective county commissioner.

"I know I have the desire (and) I have faith that I have the attributes that are required to fill the position effectively," he said.

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